The Newtown (Conn.) elementary school massacre has reignited the debate about gun control. Firearm skeptics demand new restrictions. Gun proponents insist on respect for Second Amendment rights. Like abortion, guns evoke irreconcilable political and cultural cleavages. We live in a big country. Our conflicting values cannot all be neatly squared.
Still, rational discussion could lead to better understanding, mutual respect across ideological lines, and even some majority-backed changes. Slogans and symbolism contribute little. In that spirit, let’s review some of the proposals that politicians and others will talk about in coming weeks.
Demonization A couple of weeks before Newtown, our premier sports broadcaster used his Sunday Night Football halftime soapbox to issue a heartfelt appeal for reducing the prevalence of handguns. Responding to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, Bob Costas said, said: “Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it.” Similar pained cries have echoed in the wake of the Connecticut disaster —for example, this column by the New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik, entitled, “Newtown and the Madness of Guns.”
The emotionalism is understandable. Yet railing against guns in general gets us nowhere. What are Costas and Gopnik suggesting? Confiscating some, most, or all of the 300 million firearms already in private hands? The Second Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, says that’s not happening. Our democratically grounded political system says that’s not happening. The United States, for better or worse, is a gun culture. Nearly half of American households have one or more guns, according to Gallup. Publicly mourning the degree to which firearms are woven into the fabric of our society only plays into the hands of those who contend that any discussion about regulating guns is a pretext for prohibition. The hard truth for gun foes is that the firearms are out there, and they’re not going away.
Assault weapons President Barack Obama supports a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, according to White House aides. After asserting this position during his 2008 campaign, Obama dropped it, fearing a politically costly fight with the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress. The Newtown shooting revives the issue because the killer used an assault weapon—more precisely, a semiautomatic military-style rifle—to kill most, and possibly all, his victims, according to the Connecticut medical examiner.
We tried an assault weapons ban from 1994 to 2004. It didn’t work. To avoid the restrictions of a poorly written law, gun manufacturers simply made cosmetic design changes and then enjoyed a sales boom. American gun enthusiasts reliably buy more of any make or model opponents want to deny them. Moreover, while black matte military-style rifles may look especially ominous to the uninitiated, they’re not more lethal, shot-for-shot, than grandpa’s wooden-stock deer hunting rifle (which is derived from an earlier generation of military weapons). Fully automatic machine guns—capable of firing a stream of bullets as long as the trigger is depressed—are already unavailable, unless you have a special permit. And finally, any proposal to ban the manufacture and sale of new assault weapons would do nothing about the many millions lawfully owned by private citizens. Democrats are not going to propose impounding rifles already in private gun racks.
Large-capacity magazines The coming proposals to limit the size of magazines, the spring-loaded boxes that contain ammunition, are more relevant, if no less controversial, than assault weapons “bans.” In a mass killing, the lethality of a semiautomatic rifle (or pistol) relates to how quickly and often the shooter can fire before reloading. Law enforcement officials said Sunday that the Newtown shooter used multiple 30-round magazines with his rifle, firing something on the order of 100 rounds in a very short period.
It’s not difficult to buy a 50-round “drum” magazine. Banning civilians from owning such magazines, it seems to me, would not infringe on anyone’s Second Amendment rights. Perhaps the same could be said for 30-round magazines, or 20-round magazines. Choosing the cap is necessarily arbitrary. The assault weapons ban of 1994-2004 prohibited the manufacture and sale of new magazines exceeding 10 rounds. In theory, we could reinstitute that rule.
The problem with restricting magazine capacity is that to make such a limitation meaningful, Congress would have to ban the possession of large magazines, not just the sale of new ones. Otherwise, the millions of big magazines already on the market will provide an ample supply to future mass killers. As a matter of political and law enforcement reality, are lawmakers prepared to send sheriffs and police out to take away all privately owned magazines exceeding 10 rounds? In the 1990s, the answer was no. Has that changed? I doubt it.
Background checks Here is where there’s room for achievable, meaningful improvement. The existing computerized background-check system screens out felons, minors, and other prohibited categories. The system has gaps, however. It covers only sales by federally licensed firearm dealers. “Private collectors” are allowed to sell guns without background checks. By some estimates, 40 percent of all sales slip through this gaping loophole. It ought to be closed. Nonlicensed sellers could be required to conduct their transactions via a licensed dealer, who would receive a small fee.
Improving the background-check system would make it more difficult for some significant number of shady characters to obtain guns. (They could still acquire them illegally, of course.) The Newtown shooter tried to buy a rifle at a local store shortly before his rampage and was turned away when he wouldn’t submit to a background check.
However, an improved background-check system would not have stopped the Newtown killer from doing what he did: scooping up his mother’s legally acquired guns before shooting her and all those teachers and children. Mass killers tend to be young men who, despite deranged minds and evil hearts, prepare carefully. Some have clean records before going berserk. Others obtain their weaponry from relatives or friends. Fixing background checks is worth doing. It won’t stop the next Newtown.
Mental illness Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. Congress and executive branch agencies at the federal and state level can do more to make sure that disparate and often disorganized records of individuals who’ve been found to have serious mental health problems find their way into the background-check system. The law already prohibits people who’ve been adjudicated mentally ill from buying firearms. We need to do a better job of collecting and disseminating the relevant information.
Many who are dangerously mentally ill escape treatment that would prevent them from harming themselves and others. Short of mass murder, hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people commit crimes and end up in prison without adequate antipsychotic medication. It’s too difficult for relatives, friends, teachers, and others to civilly commit dangerously mentally ill individuals before they do harm.
Taking steps well short of incarceration—our current de facto policy for warehousing the dangerously mentally ill—would be a humane alternative for all concerned, and it could prevent school shootings. This is not gun control, per se, yet it deserves urgent attention.
Personal responsibility People who own guns need to keep them away from children and psychologically troubled members of their households. With the right to own firearms comes great responsibility. We don’t yet know all the details about the Newtown killer and his deceased mother. Yet it’s hard to imagine what she was thinking: a disturbed, antisocial, 20-year-old son and a half-dozen guns?
The most important gun control can’t be legislated. It’s common sense.